Pinellas County homeowner, condo groups haunted by theft case

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Lorri Helfand

Published February 20, 2010

A woman who lives in a Clearwater condo pushes a heavy dresser in front of her door every night before she goes to sleep because she no longer feels safe.

She wasn't a victim of a mugging or some other violent crime. But a neighbor says the woman's sense of security was shattered after $300,000 was stolen from the condo association.

Catherine McMullen, 47, is the woman accused of stealing that money. McMullen, who has been charged with grand theft, is accused of embezzling about $1 million from about 20 homeowner groups throughout Pinellas County. She worked for Buxton Properties in Largo. And until her arrest last March, she said in a police report, she had sole control of the finances for the associations Buxton managed. She admitted to a shell game that involved shifting money among various association bank accounts, as well as Buxton's accounts, police said.

The case has dragged on for nearly a year, and the judge wants to get it rolling. On Wednesday, he scheduled a hearing for March 31 to set a date for either a trial or a change of plea, said McMullen's attorney, John Trevena.

Frustrated residents have written the prosecutor 

Vincent Fina walks back to his Greenbriar III condo in Clearwater after collecting his mail on Thursday. The Greenbriar III Condominium Association has assessed its losses at about $50,000.

to say they've dealt with many headaches while trying to figure out how much is missing from their associations and how they're going to come up with money for repairs and other expenses.

The theft has taken an emotional toll, as well as a financial one, they say.

"Even though it's a nonviolent crime, it harms their quality of life. It devastates them," said Carol Gray, 60, a resident at Sunfish Bay Condominium in Clearwater. She wrote several letters to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office about the plight of her neighbors, including the woman who sleeps after barricading her door.

McMullen accepts responsibility for taking about $475,000, Trevena said. But she's been trying to point to others.

She wanted to sit down with prosecutors to offer information that might reduce her sentence. But at Wednesday's hearing, the prosecutor said the state wasn't interested.

McMullen could serve as much as 30 years or as little as 21 months, according to sentencing guidelines.

"She believes the State Attorney's Office is intentionally focusing on her and intentionally excluding information" that would implicate someone else, Trevena said.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said Trevena provided a sampling of information to his office, but Bartlett said it was without merit.

It would be pointless to sit down with McMullen because "the money trail and all of the documents suggest she got the money and she's blowing the money," Bartlett said.

From at least 2006 to 2009, McMullen stole from the accounts to cover bills for herself and her family, police say. During most months, between $25,000 and $35,000 was going in and out of McMullen's bank account, police records show.

Among other things, the money was used for cell phone bills, payments for several family cars, spa visits, pet care, dinners out and overdraft fees.

She was released on $30,000 bail in May and lives in Arizona with her husband, records show.

The Greenbriar III Condominium Association in Clearwater has assessed its losses at about $50,000. Board member James Goss, 81, wrote the prosecutor about his 18-unit association's trials. The association's insurance company denied its claim and alleged fraud, Goss said.

"Now we are unable to get any insurance until that (label) of fraud is taken off our claim," Goss said Thursday.

Paul Frey, a board member of Sunfish Bay, informed prosecutors that his association had to assess residents $77,000 to start repairs on leaking roofs. Residents have no idea how many more thousands they will have to pay.

"Show no leniency to this woman. We expect the courts to give justice for the victims of this crime," Frey wrote.